Keeping Burra Katha alive in the wave of impersonal storytelling art forms

Banned in British India and by the Nizam of Hyderabad for its sting, it has few takers today

Updated - August 30, 2019 02:34 pm IST

Published - August 19, 2019 12:12 am IST - Vijayawada

Artistes performing Burra Katha in Vijayawada.

Artistes performing Burra Katha in Vijayawada.

Tying a ghungaroo on his right ankle, Mandapalli Premanandam, 69, rehearses his lines and rises to check his makeup one last time before entering the stage to perform the art form that he has dedicated his entire life to: Burra Katha.

“I have been performing Burra Katha for half-a-century now. From then to now, people, especially the younger generation, are so glued to the pre-recorded performances and cinemas, that the art form I have dedicated my life to is losing its relevance in the modern world,” mourns Mr. Mandapalli.

An oral storytelling folk art form in the Jangam Katha tradition, Burra Katha is prominent mostly in the rural areas of Andhra Pradesh, Telangana and Karnataka. The art became popular since it is performed in close quarters to the laymen in the society. The ensemble - one main performer, called the Kathakudu, plays the tambura as he moves forward and backward, expressing the central emotions of the story, and two co-performers who play the drums (called dinki in Telugu), accentuate the performance.

Mythological to political

“Burra Katha stories were mostly religious and mythological. Its rise to prominence during the pre- independence period could be attributed to its foray into the political and freedom struggle rhetoric by the Communist Party of India, which mobilized the troupes to perform on the themes of colonial oppression and Indian independence struggle,” said J. Eshwara Rao, 67, a co-performer in Premanandam’s troupe.

It is believed that the art played such an effective role in conveying a sense of awakening among the people that the British banned its performances in Madras Presidency and the ruler of the Hyderabad, the Nizam too banned it in his domain.

“It takes us at least a month to write and rehearse the stories. We dedicated our lives and continue dedicating it to this art form that we embraced. An art that was strong enough to be banned is now being shunned by cinema, pre-recorded cultural shows, and westernized forms of storytelling. The younger generation has now lost the threshold to witness a live performance in all its glory and wish to have everything within the reach of a remote control,” rued Mr. Rao.

Malady of modernisation

Over the years, Burra Katha, has undergone modernization. The troupes, in Vizianagaram and other adjoining areas, now became groups of 10 performing with a mélange of musical instruments and topics. However, the artistes upholding the traditional form feel that this has only accelerated its disappearance.

“They write stories based on immoral themes and spread misinformation among the public. This is wrong as this is not what Burra Katha stands for,” said an angry Mr. Mandapalli expressing his disapproval.

“We should focus on spreading right information to the people. For instance, the current government has asked us to write a Burra Katha on their ‘Navaratnalu,’ focusing on fulfilling the nine promises made to the people. We narrate the stories at the district collector’s offices in various regions every Monday to spread awareness among people,” he adds.

Penury, but pride

“This is all that we know. This is all that is left of us. We barely get paid and sustenance is difficult but the pride in telling stories to people will is unparalleled. It is not a job, it is our service to the society,” said Mr. Mandapalli and Rao said their eyes brimming with pride as they spoke about Burra Katha at a length.

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